Small Black evolves from chillwave 

click to enlarge Small Black
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Musicians in Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Small Black created its new album "Limits of Desire" intending to play it live.

Upon releasing its debut EP in 2009, the Brooklyn, N.Y., band Small Black was hailed as one of the earliest purveyors of chillwave, a subgenre that emphasized languid, atmospheric songs and lo-fi production values.

Over the years, the label became more of a scarlet letter than a proper barometer for the band, pigeonholing it as an outfit content to hide behind a wall of electronic effects.

"I think the concept of chillwave has been much more focused on setting mood and tone than actual songwriting," says Small Black frontman Josh Kolenik, who brings the four-piece to the Rickshaw Stop next week.

"We wanted to make sure that our songs were actually about something, and I think that has started to separate us from some of the other groups in that genre," he adds.

On Small Black's new album, "Limits of Desire," Kolenik's vocals are clearer, the production value is amped up and an embrace of shimmering synths recalls 1980s mood groups such as Talk Talk and The Blue Nile, the latter a Glasgow, Scotland, band that played a particularly influential role.

A loose narrative also emerges through the course of the album — something not found on the group's EP or 2010 album, "New Chain."

The record starts out on a sunny, cheerful note, with early tracks "Free at Dawn" and "No Stranger" espousing themes of romantic hopefulness and opportunity. But by the close, "Outskirts," the mood has darkened considerably, and Kolenik is asking, "What's the maximum I'm willing to give / What's the maximum I'm going to be happy with?"

The warm, welcoming layers of digital music and airy guitars are replaced by an aural landscape that feels ominous and claustrophobic.

"I wanted to touch on how the optimism at the beginning of a relationship can quickly be replaced with disillusionment," Kolenik says. "I think it takes me several years to kind of process the state of my relationships, and looking back I can see that a lot of them followed that same arc. These songs reflect that hope in the beginning and the loss in the end."

Despite the lyrics' painful subject matter, Kolenik says the songs from the new album lend themselves better to live performances than the group's earlier catalog.

"The EP and 'New Chain' both contained very complex electronic sounds, and we really didn't think about how they would translate outside of the studio," Kolenik says. "But with 'Limits of Desire,' we wanted to challenge ourselves and make an album with the intent of performing it very faithfully live."


Small Black

Where: Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: $15

Contact: (415) 861-2011,

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Will Reisman

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